Skip to main content
Disease

Meningococcal disease

Page last updated on 12 December 2018

Meningococcal disease is and uncommon but serious disease caused by the bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis (more commonly known as meningococcus). It can cause invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) which can result in serious complications or death. 

IMD includes meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain) and septicaemia (blood poisoning). Meningococcus can also infect other areas, including the lungs, joints and eyes.

Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent meningococcal disease. For further information regarding meningococcal prevention and vaccination, speak with your healthcare professional.

Key disease information

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease refers to the group of illnesses that can be caused by bacterium commonly known as meningococcus (or Neisseria meningitidis).

Meningococcal bacteria live naturally in the back of the nose and throat in about 10% of the population without causing illness. In a small number of people, the bacteria passes the lining of the throat, enters the bloodstream and consequently causes meningococcal disease.

The infection can develop very quickly, however, if the infection is diagnosed early enough and the right antibiotics are given quickly, many people can make a complete recovery. However, for IMD, between 5-10% of people will die, even with treatment. Others will be left with permanent disabilities including loss of limbs or some form of brain damage.

What is the difference between meningococcal disease and meningitis?

While meningococcal disease and meningitis are related, they are not the same thing.

Meningitis refers to an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. You can get meningitis from infection with viruses, bacteria and parasites, as well as other non-infectious causes (e.g. head injury or conditions such as lupus).

There are two main types of meningitis:

  • Viral mengingitis (relatively common, most cases are mild and rarely fatal)
  • Bacterial meningitis (rare in comparison, but extremely dangerous and can be fatal)

 

Bacterial meningitis is very serious and requires medical attention as soon as possible. Some common types of bacterial meningitis include:

  • Hib meningitis – caused by Haemophilus influenzae tybe b (Hib) bacterium
  • Meningococcal meningitis – caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacterium
  • Pneumococcal meningitis – caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacterium

Meningococcal disease refers to a condition caused by the meningococcal bacterium (or, Neisseria meningitidis). Meningococcal disease can include meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord – this lining is called the meninges), and septicaemia (blood poisoning). 
 

What is the difference between viral and bacterial meningitis?

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis. It is often less severe than bacterial meningitis and most people are able to make a full recovery.

Bacterial meningitis progresses rapidly and can be life-threatening. Bacterial meningitis can lead to permanent disabilities (such as brain damage, hearing loss and learning disabilities) or even death.

It’s very important for anyone experiencing symptoms of meningitis to see their doctor right away- only a doctor will be able to diagnose the disease, including the type of meningitis and the best treatment required, which can be lifesaving.  

How is meningococcal disease spread?

Meningococcal bacteria live naturally in the back of the nose and throat of healthy adults and children, and can be quite difficult to spread. 

Generally, it takes person-to-person contact to spread these bacteria. The bacteria can be passed from one person to another through respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit). For example, prolonged household contact (living in the same house) or intimate contact such as kissing.

Meningococcal bacteria are found only in humans and cannot live more than a few seconds outside of the body. About 10% of people  become carriers of the bacteria without causing symptoms or disease, but they can still pass the bacteria on to others. 

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is potentially fatal, urgent medical advice at the nearest hospital is advised if someone displays symptoms of the infections.

Meningitis:

  • stiff neck
  • fever
  • headache
  • photophobia (eyes being more sensitive to light)
  • nausea/vomiting
  • confusion
  • poor eating/drinking, low alertness and vomiting (babies)

 

Septicaemia:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • vomiting
  • chills
  • cold hands and feet
  • severe aches or pains
  • rapid breathing
  • diarrhoea
  • a dark purple rash in the later stages
How can meningococcal disease be prevented?

Vaccination is the best protection against meningococcal disease – even if you have had meningococcal disease before. This is because immunity does not necessarily last forever. 

There are different types of vaccines for the different serotypes of meningococcal disease. Vaccination against one serotype does not provide protection against other serotypes.

You should speak to your healthcare professional about which vaccinations are appropriate for you.
 

Meningococcal vaccines available in Australia?

There are a number of vaccines available in Australia:

  • Meningococcal ACWY vaccine – this covers disease caused by A, C, W and Y

Meningococcal ACWY vaccine is provided free to all infants at 12 months of age on the National Immunisation Program (NIP) as of July 2018.

  • Meningococcal B vaccine – this covers disease caused by the B strain.
  • Some state and territory governments are also providing free meningococcal vaccinations to students in high schools and to men who have sex with men. Contact your doctor to find out what vaccines are being provided in your state.

 

For further information on available vaccines, speak with your healthcare professional.

Do I need to worry about meningococcal disease when I travel?

Depending on where you travel, your healthcare professional may recommend a meningococcal vaccine to protect you from the disease. Some areas that have high levels of meningococcal disease include sub-Saharan Africa. Saudia Arabia also requires all participants in the annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage to show proof of meningococcal vaccination.

Does meningococcal disease only affect children?

No, meningococcal disease can affect people of all ages.

However, those at most risk include children under 5 years of age due to their less mature immune system and tendancy to put things in their mouth and share food, drink and toys), as well as teenagers and young adults from 15-24 years of age, due to the socially interactive lifestyle they tend to lead.

VaccineHub offers general information only. Please see a healthcare professional for medical advice

Find a doctor near you
map
image

View the travel map

Launch interactive map

Sources & Citations

  1. Australian Government. Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition. 4.10 Meningococcal disease. Available at: http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/Handbook10-home~handbook10part4~handbook10-4-10 (accessed 18 April 2018).
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal disease. Signs and symptoms. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/meningococcal/about/symptoms.html (accessed 18 April 2018).
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningitis. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/index.html (accessed 18 April 2018).
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningitis. Causes and spread to others. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/meningococcal/about/causes-transmission.html (accessed 18 April 2018).
  5. Victoria State Government. Meningococcal disease. Available at https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/meningococcal-disease (accessed 18 April 2018).
  6. National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System. Number of notifications of all diseases received from State and Territory health authorities, 2017. Available at: http://www9.health.gov.au/cda/source/rpt_2.cfm (accessed 25 April 2018).
  7. Meningococcal Australia. The Facts. Available at http://www.meningococcal.org.au/new-page-1/ (accessed 26 April 2018).
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal disease Travel as a risk factor. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/meningococcal/about/risk-travelers.html (accessed 22 May 2018).
  9. Ministry of Health. Manutu Hauora. Questions and Answers – Meningococcal Disease. Available at: https://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/pages/meningococcal-qa-30sep2011.pdf [accessed 21 May 2018].
  10. Meningitis Now. Meningitis explained, FAQ. Available at: https://www.meningitisnow.org/meningitis-explained/what-is-meningitis/frequently-asked-questions/ [accessed 21 May 2018].

SPANZ.MENAC.18.05.0181 - Date of preparation May 2018

Related